Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Down to business at the Houffalize World Cup!

Bike racing in Belgium is serious stuff - and the weather makes sure you know it...cold, wet, and sobering...
Pulling in to Houffalize, Belgium on day one - the fog and clouds reminding me that this would be no cakewalk
The second round of the 2012 World Cup took us to the heart of the Ardennes in Belgium - the Houffalize World Cup!!   The legacy of bicycle racing is palpable in Houffalize, with one of the noteworthy climbs of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege running straight through town (the Cote du St. Roche).  

It's easy to imagine the likes of cycling legends like Eddy Merckx, thundering through the countryside:

Cote du St. Roche in Houffalize, 2011 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, as immortalized by cycling photographer Graham Watson

The Houffazlie World Cup is one of the most celebrated races in mountain biking, dating back over 20 years - a long time for the sport.  Historically, the race has attracted the largest, fastest field of any World Cup, and perhaps the biggest, loudest crowd.  With 2012 being an Olympic year, and the discipline having reached a new level of intensity, the race this year would turn out to be an absolute blockbuster.

As if the cycling tradition isn't enough, this area of Belgium is historically significant for many other reasons.  On my first day, I rode around the region between Houffalize, Marche and Bastogne, on which the Battle of the Bulge took place in 1944.

Monuments in nearly every village commemorate the events of WWII

I spent the week leading up to the race preparing for Sunday's big race, based out of the village of Boeur, about 9km from the venue.  Traveling as a privateer to compete in international events requires that you be highly proficient at adapting your home routine to a new place.  Europe is far from home, but feeling far from home is usually just a matter of perspective.  There are many ways to maintain continuity to keep the trips feeling smooth.  Afterall, for somebody like me, traveling to a World Cup without a team for logistical support, getting to the start line with low stress is as much a part of the competition as the race itself.  

Packaging the race bike for the flight

And into the bag!

Except for the bike, this is all the luggage you need for a week or two trip (even with cold-weather clothing!)

All airports begin to feel routine and normal, wherever you are traveling -  FLYING TIP - order the low-sodium meals when you book, you get your meals before everyone else, and they are much healthier than the standard, sodium-laden airplane fodder!

Bikes arrive safely!  Meeting up with Chloe Woodruff (Crankbrothers) in Brussels

Google Maps is one of my best friends prior to the car rental 
Navigating narrow European village roads - this one in Liege

Home for the week - Boeur, Belgium

Stocking up on groceries for the week - it's usually easy to find all the ingredients to cook the same meals I eat at home - this is a huge part of keeping these trips from feeling overwhelming

The sun did shine occasionally - felt very much like Seattle

The cottage in Boeur, charting out the training routes for the week...

They don't have these back home...unfortunately

HUGE THANKS to Tom and Sebastien from KONA for coming to the race to offer support on raceday!  Me getting the bike prepped following the Sprint Eliminator event.  

I did not do well enough (top-60) in South Africa's Round I to earn a better start position - so this is what I have to work with.  For me, this will be a race of grit and perseverance 

The start climb, 160+ rider stampede -only the top 30-or-so riders could actually run the climb.  For the rest of us, a lung-searing run from the back.  I started up the climb in the 130s, eventually fighting my way to 87th.  Ouch!

It was as steep up as it was down...that is some kind of pain-face I'm showing.  It was also cold - I chose the long-leggings and top and felt great throughout the race
And what did I have to show for my efforts...a hard-fought race, strong finish on the lead lap, high average normalized power...but still over 11 minutes down on the leader, 4 minutes of which was on the start loop!!   

I felt strong and fast throughout the Houffalize race, always passing riders on the climbs and riding the descents clean - there was no placing-board out during the race, so I was not sure what position I was in until the finish - I thought I must have been faster than a spot in the 80s...but alas...that was all I could muster.  Immediately after the race, still full of adrenaline, I felt good about my effort, but as things have calmed down, my feelings are a bit more mixed.  I'm "in the mix" as they say, considering my recent history in stepping up to this level of racing, my challenging start position, coming from behind, passing over 50 riders in the fastest XC mountain bike race in the world, but in Belgium, I felt put in my place a bit more than ever before.  To have felt that good, but only muster an 87th is just...(whoof)...this is the World Cup...  

And totally deserving of some Belgian delicacies...

filled with fruit!!...


Nevertheless, motivation is still very high.  The next two stops on the World Cup tour are in May - Czech Republic and France.  For the American Olympic Campaign, the selection will come down to the best performances at these two races.  Currently, Todd Wells, Stephen Ettinger, and Sam Schults appear to be leading the way, with Jeremiah Bishop, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Adam Craig, and myself in the mix behind that.  It continues to be a thrill to be pursuing the Olympic Campaign as one of the underdogs - as I joked with Tom and Sebastien after the race, "I'm out here for the little guy!...the working man!"  I may not be at the front, but I have found a way to make this work well for me, and feel fulfilled on many levels by the whole process.    

Now...back in the US, a few days suited up at the Ridgeline Energy office in Seattle, and then spending the next two weekends racing on American soil...and under some warm sunshine, hopefully...Sea Otter and the Whiskey 50...stay tuned!

Thanks for reading.